One of the most improbable ideas from Google’s eccentric co-founders — using high-altitude balloons to provide internet connections — is getting a boost from another unconventional technology mogul.
An affiliate of Masayoshi Son’s telecom company SoftBank Corp is investing $125 million in Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc.
The SoftBank unit and Loon will share technology and ground stations, and form “an alliance to promote the use of high altitude communications solutions with regulators and officials worldwide,” according to a statement from the two companies.
The deal gives the SoftBank affiliate, HAPSMobile, an undisclosed minority stake in Loon. And in the future, Loon has the right to invest $125 million in the unit, a joint venture
between SoftBank and Aerovironment Inc that designs telecommunication aircraft. The partnership will initially target service in countries near the equator, eyeing proximity to developing markets as well as abundant solar energy.
SoftBank, one of Japan’s largest wireless operators, began exploring alternatives to terrestrial antennae after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami knocked out a broad swath of its network.
While the idea of using aircraft as a flying base station has been around for decades, it’s only this year that the efficiency of solar panels and battery capacity have advanced enough to make that practical, SoftBank Chief Technology Officer Junichi Miyakawa said.
“Making better use of the stratosphere is a huge challenge for humanity,” Miyakawa told a briefing in Tokyo. “Above the clouds, the sunlight is plentiful. The air is thin and the winds
Hawk 30 aircraft developed by HAPSMobile have a wingspan of 78 metres, 10 propellers and can travel at speeds of 110 kilometers an hour. They will eventually operate at an altitude of 20 kilometres for six months at a time, Miyakawa said.
SoftBank and Loon plan to offer connectivity services to carriers in countries where building a physical network is difficult. SoftBank will offer terrestrial gateway stations for Loon’s balloons starting this year, before introducing its own aircraft in 2023. The network could also make use of low-Earth-orbit satellites operated by OneWeb Ltd, a SoftBank Vision Fund portfolio company.
Loon, which began in the Google X “moonshot lab”, retreated from an initial plan to blanket the globe with its internet-beaming, stratospheric helium-filled balloons. Instead, it has been negotiating more targeted deals with industry partners, including a telecom company in Kenya and satellite firm in Canada.
Facebook Inc last year decided to shut down its own program, called Aquila, after about four years in development.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin formed the
Alphabet holding company in 2015 to give newer, riskier projects more room to grow away from the main Google digital advertising operation.
Some of these emerging businesses have taken investments from other companies in their industries. Verily, an health-technology unit, has raised nearly $2 billion in outside funding. Calico, a bold attempt to thwart death, has teamed up with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie Inc, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the initiative.
HAPSMobile, which is 90 percent owned by SoftBank, was created in January 2018 to develop solar-powered high-altitude unmanned aircraft and ground control stations.
Aerovironment controls the remaining 10 percent and has exclusive rights to design and manufacture all such aircraft in the future.
Aerovironment’s experience with high-altitude long-endurance aircraft dates back to the 90s, building prototypes for Nasa and the Pentagon. According to the company’s presentation materials to investors in June 2018, it targeted HAPS demonstration and certification starting next fiscal year.
The aircraft developed by HAPSMobile costs about as much as 10 Ferraris but the price should fall with volume, Miyakawa said.